fri 20/09/2019

The Day Mountbatten Died, BBC Two review - the IRA's audacious strike at the heart of the British Establishment | reviews, news & interviews

The Day Mountbatten Died, BBC Two review - the IRA's audacious strike at the heart of the British Establishment

The Day Mountbatten Died, BBC Two review - the IRA's audacious strike at the heart of the British Establishment

Everyone remembers Lord Mountbatten’s death but a score of other people died on that sunny August day

Classiebawn Castle, built for Lord Palmerston, inherited by Lady Mountbatten

It was a lovely summer’s day in southern England, much as it was in County Sligo. I was with my parents, driving to visit a very elderly relative. We arrived not long after the news of Lord Mountbatten’s death was announced and my great aunt was distraught, more over the death of someone she saw as a war hero than over the general carnage, I suspect. I don’t recall if my parents saw his death as a particular tragedy – “The Troubles” were a decade old that day in August 1979 and everyone hated the IRA for the destruction of so many lives, many on mainland Britain. When I went to interview Gerry Adams 15 years later, my father was furious.

It was 27 August and, as the documentary The Day Mountbatten Died recounts, Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma and his family were on holiday, gathered as usual at Classiebawn Castle, a country pile built for Lord Palmerston on land confiscated by the English Parliament to compensate the people who crushed the 1641 Irish rebellion. Mountbatten’s late wife, the racy Countess Edwina, inherited it in 1939 and by that fateful August day, Mountbatten had spent 19 summers there, puttering around in his boat. Shadow V was kept moored in the harbour at Mullaghmore where lords and locals rubbed along happily. The visitors brought “jobs and a touch of glamour” and lucky neighbours might even receive the occasional gift – Barbara Cartland’s Book of Useless Information, signed “Mountbatten of Burma” in 1978, seemed still to be treasured.

It seems extraordinary now, in this age of terrorism, that security around Mountbatten and his clan was low-key, though Sligo was just 13 miles from the border with “deep roots in the Republican movement”. Apparently, Mountbatten had been a target since the mid-70s, the original plan to ambush him at the gates to Classiebawn. In the event, a 50lb bomb was hidden in the boat and detonated remotely.

Despite the self-importance to which many have attested, Philip Ziegler said that Mountbatten would have been “astonished” to think he was an IRA target. His death was one of many hideous murders to which the Good Friday Agreement put an end and it’s often forgotten that he did not die alone. His 14-year-old grandson Nicholas was killed instantly along with a local lad he had befriended, Paul Maxwell, 15. Timothy, Nicholas’s twin, survived, as did their parents, though they suffered grievous injuries. Their grandmother, Lady Brabourne, died the next day in hospital.

India Hicks, a Mountbatten granddaughter who had remained at Classiebawn that day, remembers being given a Valium before being told the news. She and her brother had been in the library watching old Laurel and Hardy movies, she recalled tearfully. She ran down to the beach and sat on the rocks – “It was such a beautiful day”. The boat, she says, watching old film, “was always at the heart of the holiday.” It was “do as you’re told… He was admiralling.”

The funeral, India continued, was “extraordinary” – Mountbatten had organised it himself, the biggest state funeral since Churchill’s. The following week, in that caring-sharing upper-class way, she was despatched to Gordonstoun. Hadn’t Prince Charles told his beloved Uncle Dickie how much he hated it?

Paul’s distraught mother Mary (pictured above) had heard “a huge crack like thunder, and I immediately said ‘Paul is dead’… I knew he was dead because I felt a part of me go.” A handsome young man, interested in the navy and excited to be boating – in the wrong place at the wrong time, a true tragedy. How were his family looked after? We’re not told.

Two huge bombs took 18 lives, the biggest single loss the British Army had suffered in Northern Ireland

The BBC’s Nicholas Witchell, then a trainee reporter on the Belfast desk, was given a tip-off after the explosion: a Republican contact asked for a meeting. As they sat in a car, the contact withdrew a wodge of clingfilm-wrapped paper from his mouth on which was written the IRA’s claim of “execution”. Thomas McMahon, an IRA volunteer and the only man ever convicted of the crime, was released following the Good Friday Agreement. Anthony McIntyre, a volunteer who is now a historian, considers the bombing a war crime, “because children were on the boat and that was probably known.” The late Martin McGuinness, as Chief of Staff, should have taken responsibility, he said.

Within hours of the Shadow V bomb, a convoy was ambushed at Warrenpoint 100 miles to the east. Two huge bombs took 18 lives, the biggest single loss the British Army had suffered in Northern Ireland. All of them were Paras, despised on both sides of the border for their complicity in Bloody Sunday. Another victim was a young man over from England to visit his cousin – he was mistaken for a terrorist and shot. No one was ever brought to trial though there were suggestions that the Establishment ensured justice was done.

The most poignant stories came from the unsung rescuer who brought the young bodies ashore at Mullaghmore; the passing photographer who captured the scenes at Warrenpoint and joined the Fire Brigade the next week, never taking another picture. And Mary, Paul’s still-grieving but proud mother. For years, Mullaghmore felt ashamed.

Irish journalist Olivia O’Leary reflected on 20 years of reconciliation, the vital symbolism of the Queen shaking hands with Martin McGuinness. “The problem with peace is you have to keep working on it,” she said at the end of the documentary. “It’s not a matter of ‘peace coming dropping slow’. Peace has to be worked at. Damn hard.”

Let’s hope our politicians remember that as they race toward that trick-or-treat deadline, with all its ghastly possibilities for the island of Ireland.

Liz Thomson's website

Anthony McIntyre, a volunteer who is now a historian, considers the bombing a war crime, 'because children were on the boat and that was probably known'

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